Despite the large number of blowouts in the playoffs so far, I can't complain about the matchups in both the AFC and NFC Championship games (especially since the Cowboys and Eagles have been eliminated). The Saints and Vikings were easily the two best teams in the NFC this year, the Colts had the NFL's best record and could still be undefeated if they actually wanted to be, and the Jets have the NFL's best defense and rushing attack and have caught fire at the right time. All four teams deserve to be playing today, and each certainly has a decent chance to get to the Super Bowl.
Here are my picks for the two games:
COLTS (-8) over Jets
To me, the biggest matchup in this game isn't Peyton Manning vs. the Jets defense -- it's the other way around. The Colts are going to do everything in their power to shut down the Jets' ground game and force Mark Sanchez to beat them. Sanchez, as many rookies can be, is turnover prone, and the Colts will try to confuse him and put pressure on him in ways that they didn't show in the teams' first meeting late in the regular season.
In that game (a 29-15 Jets win), which isn't the best example since the Colts pulled their starters early in the third quarter, the Jets only scored one offensive touchdown (a one-yard run by Thomas Jones). Their two other touchdowns came in the third quarter on fluky plays: a 106-yard kickoff return by Brad Smith and a fumble return for a touchdown with backup quarterback Curtis Painter in the game for the Colts. The Jets were able to run the ball (202 yards on 44 carries), but Sanchez didn't do anything out of the ordinary (12-19 for 106 yards).
Sanchez doesn't have to have a big game for the Jets to win, but he does have to take care of the ball and move the chains on more than a few instances. If he plays somewhere in the middle of how he played in the Bengals game (12-15 for 182 yards, one TD) and the Chargers game (12-23 for 100 yards, one TD, one INT), then the Jets should have a shot.
The Jets defense will slow down Manning and the Colts a little bit, but their offense is still going to need to score points. At some point, they may even have to move the ball down the field quickly and won't be able to simply lean on the running game. I just don't think Sanchez can do that in such a big game against a team that's been in this situation many times before.
Colts 24, Jets 13
Vikings (+4) over SAINTS
First, let me say this: I'm pulling for the Saints. I respect Brett Favre and think he's a great quarterback, but I don't want to see him in the Super Bowl.
Back to the game: This has a chance to be a phenomenal playoff game. Now that Percy Harvin has participated in practice, both teams have all of their offensive weapons ready to go (except for Jeremy Shockey, but really, who cares about Shockey?). The Vikings and Saints are both loaded at running back and wide receiver, not to mention that Drew Brees and Favre are two of the best quarterbacks in the game and had fantastic seasons.
Both teams are going to get their points, but I think one of the game's biggest factors is Reggie Bush. He looked awesome last week -- where did that come from? He's always been a threat on special teams, but he was running over Cardinals' defenders and finishing runs in a way that I've never seen him do before. If Bush morphs into that running back threat again, the Saints offense will be almost impossible to stop.
The Vikings, though, looked just as good as the Saints in their 34-3 blowout win over the Cowboys. Favre threw four touchdown passes -- three to Sidney Rice -- and their defense sacked Tony Romo six times and forced three turnovers. Adrian Peterson didn't have a big game (26 carries for 63 yards), but he didn't have to with Favre picking the Cowboys defense apart.
I don't have a particularly strong feeling either way on who's going to win, but I do like that the Vikings led the NFL in sacks with 48 while the Saints only had 35. I expect a ton of yards and points in this game, and one quarterback pressure or sack may be the difference in this shootout.
Saints 34, Vikings 31
Regular season: 132-116-8
Overall record: 135-121-8